We live in a time where the foibles of political candidates receive round-the-clock coverage, and on Election Day Sony will release Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” a film about the man who started it all. Hugh Jackman portrays former Colorado Senator and 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart, who saw his fortunes crash from presidential favorite to political pariah in a single week.
At early festival showings at Telluride and Toronto, “The Front Runner” generated mixed critical reactions (Metacritic: 65) as it roused audiences to debate its provocative concerns about campaign transparency and gender politics: Could Bill Clinton be a good president, even though he had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? Did Hart’s demise stem from hubris, the tabloid press, political skullduggery, or some combination of these?
“I’m trying to figure this out for myself, like most people are,” Reitman said. “That’s what makes it so complicated to talk about Bill Clinton right now. The reason why I make movies is not because I have a whole bunch of answers; I have a whole bunch of questions, and that’s why I do a movie that asks the audience similar questions. These conversations are exactly why I made that kind of film.”
Back in May 1987, it looked as if Hart could beat then-vice president George H.W. Bush. Then, his surging campaign was dive-bombed by assertions (which both parties denied) that he had an affair with pharmaceutical marketer Donna Rice, whom reporters spotted entering and leaving his Washington townhouse. After Hart quit his campaign, an infamous tabloid photo showed her sitting on his lap in Miami. However, recent revelations, which came too late to insert into the movie, assert that tough Republican operative Lee Atwater made a deathbed confession that he set up the whole thing.
At this point, it’s hard to believe a womanizing politician would be forced to leave the presidential race at the suggestion that he couldn’t keep his pants zipped. However, that’s why Reitman wanted to examine how the culture turned at that pivotal moment. He first heard the Gary Hart story in a Radiolab piece and then optioned Matt Bai’s 2015 book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.”
“I thought it was a prism to a conversation about 10 different things happening in 2018,” Reitman told me. “It’s hard to talk about politics right now, the relationship with the press, gender politics, the political divide between right and left. It’s a screaming match.” The Hart story gave Reitman and his co-writers, Bai and Jay Carson, an opportunity to explore these subjects within a calmer time frame.
After star Hugh Jackman met Gary and Lee Hart, he said the prospect of playing a living person was daunting. “They had just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary,” he said. “It was a complicated situation. They separated twice, got together again, met when they were 19, coming from the Nazarenes, which is a very strict form of Christianity. But they have a real partnership.”
The film suggests Lee and Gary had a deal to keep his womanizing private. Reitman knew that was hard to swallow, and cast his “Up in the Air” star Vera Farmiga because he didn’t want Lee to feel like a victim. “There’s a marriage trying to survive a hurricane in the middle of this movie,” said Reitman.
Jackman carried around a thick notebook filled with his subject’s life story. Hart was a 50-year-old brainiac with total command of foreign and domestic policies, on his second run for the presidency. People were intimidated by him. “What makes a man believe they’re the right person to be the leader of the free world?” asked Jackman. “It takes incredible confidence and intellect to say, ‘I should be the one.'”
Ultimately, Hart was undone by Miami Herald reporters Jim McGee, Tom Fiedler, and James Savage, who followed a tip that the presidential front runner was having an affair. (Only Fiedler is a character in the film, portrayed by Steve Zissis.) “This was post-Watergate,” said Jackman. “[The reporters] thought, ‘This is our civic duty, every candidate is flawed, it’s our job to find out how they’re flawed.'”
To capture the atmosphere of an intense campaign, Reitman shot the film cinema verite style, inspired by Michael Richie’s ’70s classics “Downhill Racer, “The Candidate,” and “Smile.” His cast and background extras were prepared to be filmed from any angle, improvising scenes on demand (and constantly challenging the sound mixer).
Ultimately, the movie’s success may depend on audience perspectives, as it takes no strong point of view. “I feel there is an innate human desire for a simple answer to complicated questions,” Jackman said. “Just tell us who the leader should be. Just tell me the diet, which one it is! Self-help books, just tell me which one will make me happy. We want that more than ever. What I loved about the script: it’s saying the quality of the question means more than the simplicity of the answer. At the end of the day, if we keep asking those questions of ourselves, we are on the right track. There’s no villain, no hero. We see all different points of view. It’s not as simple as to say, ‘If we just had Gary Hart as president, everything would be fine.’ Other people see the film and say, ‘Oh, thank goodness we didn’t!'”
Sony will release “The Front Runner” November 6.